The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 34

MISS PONTIFEX soon found out that Ernest did not like games, but also that he could hardly be expected to like them. He was perfectly well shaped but unusually devoid of physical strength. He got a fair share of this in after life, but it came much later with him than with other boys, and at the time of which I am writing he was a mere little skeleton. He wanted something to develop his arms and chest without knocking him about as much as the school games did. To supply this want by some means which should add also to his pleasure was Alethea’s first anxiety. Rowing would have answered every purpose, but unfortunately there was no river at Roughborough.

Whatever it was to be, it must be something which he should like as much as other boys liked cricket or football, and he must think the wish for it to have come originally from himself; it was not very easy to find anything that would do, but ere long it occurred to her that she might enlist his love of music on her side, and asked him one day when he was spending a half-holiday at her house whether he would like her to buy an organ for him to play on. Of course, the boy said yes; then she told him about her grandfather and the organs he had built. It had never entered into his head that he could make one, but when he gathered from what his aunt had said that this was not out of the question, he rose as eagerly to the bait as she could have desired, and wanted to begin learning to saw and plane so that he might make the wooden pipes at once.

Miss Pontifex did not see how she could have hit upon anything more suitable, and she liked the idea that he would incidentally get a knowledge of carpentering, for she was impressed, perhaps foolishly, with the wisdom of the German custom which gives every boy a handicraft of some sort.

Writing to me on this matter, she said, “Professions are all very well for those who have connection and interest as well as capital, but otherwise they are white elephants. How many men do not you and I know who have talent, assiduity, excellent good sense, straightforwardness, every quality in fact which should command success, and who yet go on from year to year waiting and hoping against hope for the work which never comes? How, indeed, is it likely to come unless to those who either are born with interest, or who marry in order to get it? Ernest’s father and mother have no interest, and if they had they would not use it. I suppose they will make him a clergyman, or try to do so — perhaps it is the best thing to do with him, for he could buy a living with the money his grandfather left him, but there is no knowing what the boy will think of it when the time comes, and for aught we know he may insist on going to the backwoods of America, as so many other young men are doing now.” . . . . But, anyway, he would like making an organ, and this could do him no harm, so the sooner he began the better.

Alethea thought it would save trouble in the end if she told her brother and sister-in-law of this scheme. “I do not suppose,” she wrote, “that Dr. Skinner will approve very cordially of my attempt to introduce organ-building into the curriculum of Roughborough, but I will see what I can do with him, for I have set my heart on owning an organ built by Ernest’s own hands, which he may play on as much as he likes while it remains in my house and which I will lend him permanently as soon as he gets one of his own, but which is to be my property for the present, inasmuch as I mean to pay for it.” This was put in to make it plain to Theobald and Christina that they should not be out of pocket in the matter.

If Alethea had been as poor as the Misses Allaby, the reader may guess what Ernest’s papa and mamma would have said to this proposal; but then, if she had been as poor as they, she would never have made it. They did not like Ernest’s getting more and more into his aunt’s good books; still it was perhaps better that he should do so than that she should be driven back upon the John Pontifexes. The only thing, said Theobald, which made him hesitate, was that the boy might be thrown with low associates later on if he were to be encouraged in his taste for music — a taste which Theobald had always disliked. He had observed with regret that Ernest had ere now shown rather a hankering after low company, and he might make acquaintance with those who would corrupt his innocence. Christina shuddered at this, but when they had aired their scruples sufficiently they felt (and when people begin to “feel,” they are invariably going to take what they believe to be the more worldly course) that to oppose Alethea’s proposal would be injuring their son’s prospects more than was right, so they consented, but not too graciously.

After a time, however, Christina got used to the idea, and then considerations occurred to her which made her throw herself into it with characteristic ardour. If Miss Pontifex had been a railway stock she might have been said to have been buoyant in the Battersby market for some few days; buoyant for long together she could never be, still for a time there really was an upward movement. Christina’s mind wandered to the organ itself; she seemed to have made it with her own hands; there would be no other in England to compare with it for combined sweetness and power. She already heard the famous Dr. Walmisley of Cambridge mistaking it for a Father Smith. It would come, no doubt, in reality to Battersby church, which wanted an organ, for it must be all nonsense about Alethea’s wishing to keep it, and Ernest would not have a house of his own for ever so many years, and they could never have it at the Rectory. Oh, no! Battersby church was the only proper place for it.

Of course, they would have a grand opening, and the Bishop would come down, and perhaps young Figgins might be on a visit to them — she must ask Ernest if young Figgins had yet left Roughborough — he might even persuade his grandfather, Lord Lonsford, to be present. Lord Lonsford and the Bishop and everyone else would then compliment her, and Dr. Wesley or Dr. Walmisley, who should preside (it did not much matter which), would say to her, “My dear Mrs. Pontifex, I never yet played upon so remarkable an instrument.” Then she would give him one of her very sweetest smiles and say she feared he was flattering her, on which he would rejoin with some pleasant little trifle about remarkable men (the remarkable man being for the moment Ernest) having invariably had remarkable women for their mothers — and so on and so on. The advantage of doing one’s praising for oneself is that one can lay it on so thick and exactly in the right places.

Theobald wrote Ernest a short and surly letter a propos of his aunt’s intentions in this matter.

“I will not commit myself,” he said, “to an opinion whether anything will come of it; this will depend entirely upon your own exertions; you have had singular advantages hitherto, and your kind aunt is showing every desire to befriend you, but you must give greater proof of stability and steadiness of character than you have given yet if this organ matter is not to prove in the end to be only one disappointment the more.

“I must insist on two things: firstly, that this new iron in the fire does not distract your attention from your Latin and Greek” -(”They aren’t mine,” thought Ernest, “and never have been”) —”and secondly, that you bring no smell of glue or shavings into the house here, if you make any part of the organ during your holidays.”

Ernest was still too young to know how unpleasant a letter he was receiving. He believed the innuendoes contained in it to be perfectly just. He knew he was sadly deficient in perseverance. He liked some things for a little while, and then found he did not like them any more — and this was as bad as anything well could be. His father’s letter gave him one of his many fits of melancholy over his own worthlessness, but the thought of the organ consoled him, and he felt sure that here at any rate was something to which he could apply himself steadily without growing tired of it.

It was settled that the organ was not to be begun before the Christmas holidays were over, and that till then Ernest should do a little plain carpentering, so as to get to know how to use his tools. Miss Pontifex had a carpenter’s bench set up in an outhouse upon her own premises, and made terms with the most respectable carpenter in Roughborough, by which one of his men was to come for a couple of hours twice a week and set Ernest on the right way; then she discovered she wanted this or that simple piece of work done, and gave the boy a commission to do it, paying him handsomely as well as finding him in tools and materials. She never gave him a syllable of good advice, or talked to him about everything’s depending upon his own exertions, but she kissed him often, and would come into the workshop and act the part of one who took an interest in what was being done so cleverly as ere long to become really interested.

What boy would not take kindly to almost anything with such assistance? All boys like making things; the exercise of sawing, planing, and hammering, proved exactly what his aunt had wanted to find — something that should exercise, but not too much, and at the same time amuse him; when Ernest’s sallow face was flushed with his work, and his eyes were sparkling with pleasure, he looked quite a different boy from the one his aunt had taken in hand only a few months earlier. His inner self never told him that this was humbug, as it did about Latin and Greek. Making tools and drawers was worth living for, and after Christmas there loomed the organ, which was scarcely ever absent from his mind.

His aunt let him invite his friends, encouraging him to bring those whom her quick sense told her were the most desirable. She smartened him up also in his personal appearance, always without preaching to him. Indeed she worked wonders during the short time that was allowed her, and if her life had been spared I cannot think that my hero would have come under the shadow of that cloud which cast so heavy a gloom over his younger manhood; but unfortunately for him his gleam of sunshine was too hot and too brilliant to last, and he had many a storm yet to weather, before he became fairly happy. For the present, however, he was supremely so, and his aunt was happy and grateful for his happiness, the improvement she saw in him, and his unrepressed affection for herself. She became fonder of him from day to day in spite of his many faults and almost incredible foolishnesses. It was perhaps on account of these very things that she saw how much he had need of her; but at any rate, from whatever cause, she became strengthened in her determination to be to him in the place of parents, and to find in him a son rather than a nephew. But still she made no will.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31